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Rock Heaven

Destination: Llano

Travel time from:
San Antonio– 2 hours
Dallas – 3.5 hours
El Paso – 7.25 hours
Brownsville – 6 hours
Houston – 3.75 hours
Lubbock – 4.75 hours

Llano's geology and wildflowers provide a stunning backdrop for spring getaways.

By John Ostdick

Binky Morgan sits in Juice Mammas, a juice and health shop she owns with several other Llano women. Local historical postcards, part of a collection she’s been amassing since she was 20, are scattered about our table.

As my host shares insights into her Hill Country home, I sip “Green Juice” (blendered veggie-fruit-herb bliss) and munch on no-dairy creamed broccoli soup and gluten-free crackers.

Morgan, sixth-generation Llano County on both sides of her family, recalls visiting this North Historical Business District building as a child with her father. A large weighing scale in the renovated stamped-tin, high-ceilinged structure is a nod to its agricultural past.

Llano

The Llano River in Llano.

Like many of Llano’s young adults, Morgan “got out of here as soon as I could, thinking there is so much more of the world out there.” And, like quite a few of those who wander away, she’s returned to the town of 3,500-plus.

“Locals say that Llano (LAN-oh) gets its native people back,” she says. “We came back about 14 years ago. We really discovered there wasn’t any other place more wonderful, more beautiful than my native land.”

Llano’s charms start with the area’s abundant natural beauty.

The Llano Uplift, a roughly circular geologic dome of Precambrian rock, primarily granite, covers about 50 miles along Texas Highway 29 and was 1.5 billion years in the making. Call it Rock Heaven: Geologists identify 241 rocks and minerals in Llano County, including llanite, a blue-specked dark granite found nowhere else in the world. (The bar top in the historical 1891 Badu House, a recently renovated dining/live music venue, is the world’s largest assembly of polished llanite.)

At Enchanted Rocks and Jewelry on Llano’s town square, proprietor Frank Rowell offers valuable insights on Llano’s rich geology and the river’s best rock-hunting spots (because everything gets washed there eventually).

“The Llano River is such a gem,” Morgan says. “It’s the second-cleanest in Texas, behind Devils River.”

Llano

The Slab near Kingsland.

Morgan spends much of her year planning the Llano Earth Art Fest and World Rock Stacking Championship, during which far-flung “rock stars” gather to stack river rocks in gravity-defying designs.

The March events are held in Grenwelge Park. While amateurs toil on dry land, the rock stars work the middle of the river, harvesting stones for their magic. “Hundreds of people sit on the river banks,” says Morgan’s husband, Ron Anderson, who has joined us. “Sometimes, when the artists pull their hands away and a rock doesn’t hold, the crowd will moan.”

As April arrives, Morgan is most likely taking her grandkids to the river — at one of the three in-town parks with river access, or at The Slab, along FM 3404 in Kingsland.

The Slab’s low-water crossing has about a 2-mile expanse of public access. Over time, the Llano has carved channels into the broad riverbed and created tiny islands with sandy beaches. As the weather warms, locals head out on “Slab Road” to laze, picnic and swim.

Spring also ushers in wildflower explosions. Bluebonnets. Indian paintbrushes. Buttercups. Llano and Burnet counties share an “Official Bluebonnet Co-Capital of Texas” title. (Hunters also know Llano well as the “Deer Capital of Texas,” as the county has more deer per acre than anywhere else in the state.)

“We’ll be among those driving around looking at wildflowers,” Morgan says. “We take the grandkids camping at my family’s first ranch; the bluebonnets will be thick. And we like to drive the Willow City Loop.”

Seeking full immersion? Try this: From Llano, take Texas Highway 16 south and turn left onto the Willow City Loop for a leisurely 13-mile stretch past hills painted with wildflowers. When you reach FM 1323, turn right and head into Willow City. Reconnect with Highway 16 and enjoy the scenery into Fredericksburg. At the intersection of U.S. Highway 290, go east to Johnson City, then follow U.S. Highway 281 to Marble Falls and on to Burnet. From Burnet, travel Highway 29 back to Llano. That’s about 155 miles, almost three hours if you don’t stop to take a photo — as if that’s going to happen.

On this Sunday late afternoon, however, I seek another kind of scenery.

Llano

Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que.

I pull into Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que during a lunch-dinner lull. Smoke billows from sheltered steel pits beyond a sign reading “Caution: Hot Pit.” Savory aromas rush to greet me.

A young man opens a large serving pit brimming with meats separated into trays. At my behest, he cuts off a healthy sampling of jalapeño sausage, brisket, chicken and two pork ribs (the highly esteemed beef ribs are sold out) and piles it onto a butcher-paper-covered tray. Inside, each meat is sliced to my preference. I add some of Cooper’s delicious jalapeño mac-and-cheese and scoop up free beans and sauce from a dining room station. Long wooden tables are amply supplied with paper towel rolls, loaves of sliced Butter Krust white bread, bottles of squeezable margarine, tubs of pickles, ketchup and hot sauce — and people, heads down, intently gnawing on the ’cue.

I take my bounty back to Perry’s Cottage at Mustard Seed Bed and Breakfast for a front-porch-rocking-chair sampling, stowing the rest in the cottage fridge for later.

Famed barbecue hound and Texas writer John Morthland once wrote that “in barbecue terms, Llano is where the West begins,” noting barbecue was prepared here basically the way cowboys cooked. The Texas barbecue landscape has changed significantly since those 1992 observations, but Llano retains its unique spot on the map.

Inman’s Kitchen Bar-B-Q and Catering, a stone’s throw from Cooper’s, has ardent local fans and a hunter following. Walk past branded apparel (“We’ve Been Smoking the Good Stuff Since 1972”) below an army of mounted trophy heads peering from above, and sample its celebrated turkey sausage (cased fresh, then barbecued), served with all the fixings.

Llano

The Lantex Theater.

As evening settles, I turn my attention to Inks Bridge, a 1936 truss connecting Llano’s two halves, looming nearby. Locals hail sunrises and sunsets witnessed from its pedestrian walkways.

Gazing up from my stoop, the sky is all black and vivid sparkles. The stars at night are particularly big and bright here, and Llano has taken measures to reduce light pollution.

Llano, Mason and Fredericksburg have created a regional partnership to protect their dark skies.

“We like to set up a telescope, but on a clear night the view is incredible even without one,” Anderson told me earlier.

Nearby Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is one of a handful of state parks to achieve dark-sky designation from the International Dark-Sky Association.

Enchanted Rock can prompt some lively local conversation, as both Llano and Gillespie counties claim the 640-acre, 425-foot-high pink granite dome rising above Central Texas as their own. Truth be told, the 1,640-plus-acre state natural area, which features some of the oldest exposed rock in North America, straddles the two counties.

“Don’t you dare say that. Them’s fighting words,” Morgan warns me the next day, laughing. “The entrance may be in Gillespie County, but ask anybody in Llano and they’ll be quick to note that ‘the Rock’ itself resides in Llano County. We definitely claim it.”

Llano

The “Red Top” Jail.

The next day, the town’s historic preservation officer, Terry “Tex” Toler, lets me inside the “Red Top” Jail, built from pink granite in 1895 and operational until 1982. A local friends group is restoring the Romanesque Revival-style structure, which over the years suffered severe foundation problems. (The 1893-constructed Llano County Courthouse is another wonderful example of the style.)

Our boots scuffle on the four-story building’s metal stairway. A pale light filters through its windows, casting deep shadows. On the second floor, Toler pulls on a large metal lever next to a closed cell door. A startling, resounding boom announces the cell secure.

“Sounds like something from Shawshank Redemption, doesn’t it?” he asks.

Tour completed, I poke around the stores in town.

At the well-regarded Junk Sisters, a collectibles store stocked full of the quaint and quirky, Ken Cline stands behind the counter, sorting invoices.

The former Burlington Northern Railroad Chicago terminal manager retired to Llano years ago (he remains a railroad consultant). When the previous junk shop owner decided to close up shop, Cline purchased it in August.

At Cline’s urging, I head across Bessemer Street, where Fredericksburg-Austin transplant Gary Cox and his sister, Keri Miller, recently started the Texas Music Depot in a green building Cline owns. The structure’s exterior shape hints at its original purpose, a Texaco station that closed in 1953.

Llano

Guitars at the Texas Music Depot.

The bearded, gimme-capped Cox monitors a lesson in progress as he explains how he was a traveling musician who sold instruments online for years before starting the shop in 2017. He hosts live music on his covered patio Wednesday evenings and a free local musicians’ potluck lunch and songfest on Sunday afternoons.

Llano has a lively, broad musical culture. I check out a Texas Hill Country Chamber Orchestra concert at the restored Lantex Theater on the square. The Lantex, built in 1927, is one of the few remaining single-screen theaters showing new and classic film releases.

The theater has undergone technical upgrades and had its glowing neon sign restored and remounted last year through a Main Street grant. Llano has been a part of the national Main Street program since 2003. Its facade program has been integral in helping strip the 1960s-era slip covers off Main Street storefronts, restoring them to their original condition.

Besides weekly movie showings, on the second Saturday of every month, the 400-person-capacity Lantex hosts the Heart of Texas Country Music Association’s Llano Country Opry. The theater also hosts the annual Llano Fiddle Fest the first weekend in April, which attracts fiddlers of all ages.

I’ve not begun to dig up all of the Llano treasures that keep Morgan and other reformed expats returning to the fold, but I leave knowing where to find them when I come back.

 

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